Fly on the Wall—Biological Teleology: A Metaphysical Concubine?

Fly on the Wall—Biological Teleology: A Metaphysical Concubine?

Why are we here; what’s our purpose in life?  Often to ask the question is to answer it with inferences about vocations and families, laboured productions and reproductions of life, limb, and womb.  Life seems to call for a series of goals and ambitions; is this the way of nature, though?  We live amidst many ironies of metaphysics, perhaps most of all the belief that we must do something and be something, rather than just be.

At AU, good grades begin with a broader sense of purpose, but being mindful of each study moment is equally the stuff of success.  Whether our being is to involve a broader mission leads into intriguing terrain.  It can feel natural to see our life unfolding in the manner of a seed becoming a sapling before burgeoning forth as a tree replete with cones or blossoms.  Or we might imagine our life’s work as akin to an egg that hatches into a tadpole before growing into a frog that, well, goes a-courtin’.  These assumptions wouldn’t be wrong, in terms of fables and tales, but they aren’t as scientific as they might seem.  Although in biology it’s generally assumed that organisms survive and thrive and stay alive essentially to reproduce more of their own kind, the end-goal (teleology) of anything in nature can not be assumed from its existence.  It’s not like the stars each twinkle just for our poetic impulses.  We project meaning where nature provides facts.

Purposes that transcend the visible and measurable facts of homeostasis (organisms above all exist in order merely to keep existing) thus veer akimbo into metaphysics.  Just as a stone or a raindrop tends to end up falling to earth because it seems to belong there, the assumption that organisms exist to go somewhere belies the facts on the ground.  When our academic fancies take a tumble, we can thus comfort ourselves in the fact that our present is by no means our destiny.  Just as in nature, reproduction happens as a byproduct of (cue the disco beat) stayin’ alive.  Our AU life depends more on perseverance than keeping our constant eye on a distant prize.  Of course, some might say that keeping on keeping on is itself an end goal.  But that’d be rather a circular; that is, tautological, argument, and dubious teleological lemonade if ever there was.

Francois Jacob, in a book titled The Logic of the Living, noted that “for a long time the biologist treated teleology as he would a woman he could not do without, but did not care to be seen with in public” (Jacob in Derrida, 27) This sort of clandestine concubinage, whereby the core belief of one discipline includes notable extra-disciplinary baselines, might serve to remind us that the search for meaning and purpose in our lives need not be as stressful or central to a fulfilled existence as we’d hitherto have imagined.  Maybe if we become content to just be we will fulfill our destiny; certainly to believe so would be no more of a metaphysical or teleological assumption than to say we must fulfill a certain purpose with our puny lives.  And our studies will profit if we stay within ourselves and not worry too much about struggles to come; they’ll be there whether we ponder them to excess or not.  Maybe destiny is the reason that time flies during fun moments and life feels most joyful when we’re relaxed in the here and now.

Yet, there can be too much passive serenity in our momentary accomplishments.  There’s a reason most courses weigh final grades heavily towards exams and final essays.  We do have to get things done that take planning, and maybe that explains the emphasis in science and society on fulfilling a destiny—imagined or otherwise.  Nobody ever just woke up a success or had an epiphany without prior, pertinent research.  So being ourselves isn’t to be frowned upon when it includes ambition, especially where our studies are concerned.  Nature’s replete with instances of organisms merrily being birds and bees and blossoms and bullfrogs—and with students glowing with delight and perspiration after pumping out a sterling exam essay.

In the end, it’s true that every species breeds to keep alive their species, and there lies a crux of biological science that Jacques Derrida, patron saint of thinkers who seek to reconsider the underpinnings of even the sturdiest societal assumption, addressed in a mid-70s lecture series.  The belief that species occur essentially to perpetuate themselves through reproduction implies that each bit of nature has a purpose.  As a result, prevalent in contemporary science is “a discourse that would have otherwise been taken as non-scientific, metamorphic, ideological, imaginary, or however else one might wish to characterize the non-scientific, that is, as that which does not have the right of entry into the scientific institution” (Derrida, 11)  After all, meaning itself is a subjective reality rather than a tangible realm that can be traced and monitored in nature.  Though we see beauty in a pine tree as it’s golden pollen creates a cloud when a breeze picks up, to say that the pine tree lives to reproduce is actually to project our human tendency to congeal meaning from raw data.  Logically, facts cohere into data from which we draw conclusions even though conglomerations of evidence can only be drawn together by our thinking minds.  In other words, minds are required for us to conclude that meaning and purpose are the outcome of raw reality.

To assume that meaning is implicit in the destiny of nature is where teleology gets off the philosophy train and onto a biology railcar.  Rocks, it might be said, stay hard to prevent losing their essence.  This would be, teleologically, their purpose.  But we choose not to say that rocks have a teleology because we’ve reserved that privilege for plants and animals closer; that is, more alive, to ourselves.  Life is somehow to us humans more productive than forces of nature that create things that we don’t think of as living, such as when hydrogen and oxygen condensate into water,.  Purpose we reserve for beings like us, otherwise clouds would be called alive by reproducing rain.

There’s no doubt that a sense of meaning and purpose combines within our human minds; the question is whether we elevate it to a prime directive or put it in perspective as an ideological supposition that isn’t necessarily part and parcel with empirical science.  However, biology is about the best answer rather than absolute finality.  Just because butterflies and bats never outright say that they live to breed, unlike some of the more carnal among us bipeds, doesn’t mean that reproduction isn’t the best answer to the question of destiny.  In any case, we get to pick what matters to us in each instant and decade of the treasure that is our life.  And AU is special in that it allows us to discover and invest ourselves into new meanings and purposes that our mundane lives in the so-called real world fail to fulfill.  That we’re all alive to pursue and fulfill a certain calling, answering the bell of gifts that toll for us, and being noble savants on a ritual journey to academic fulfillment, is a cultural inheritance that goes as deep as time itself.  This predilection towards purpose doesn’t mean that it’s always time to decide what we’re going to do with our lives.  After all, we’re always already fulfilling something just by being ourselves.  And while we’re pondering our purpose we might as well do some studying!

Derrida, J.  (2023).  Life Death.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.